All Things Bright…
Originally published at www.periodliving.co.uk, 22nd July 2013.
The balance between period home and modern lifestyle can sometimes be tricky to achieve. But, if something has to give, should we alter the house or our lifestyle?
When it comes to our exacting 21st century expectations, the need for natural light is high on the list. Our Victorian home in South Somerset has lovely sash windows, huge by today’s standards, and the majority of the rooms are therefore flooded with light. The sitting room, however, was the one exception. When we took on the house, the original solitary window had long been replaced by a pair of heavy French windows and, despite the south-facing aspect, the room was extremely gloomy. With a roaring fire, on a winter’s evening, that gloominess could be transformed into cosiness but the rest of the time it was far too dark. We were therefore faced with a choice – live with it, or knock through into the adjoining room to make the most of the natural light from one of those big sash windows.
The house has the classic layout of two rooms on either side, with a central hallway and staircase dividing the ground floor in two. In our case, there’s a nice, quirky twist to this tried and trusted arrangement thanks to a doorway under the stairs that connects the two back rooms: the kitchen, which used to be the scullery and the sitting room, formerly the kitchen. The only possible candidate for the knock-through was therefore the adjoining room to the front of the house. The sash window at the front faces north but would still have a considerable effect on the amount of light entering the room.
The trouble is that choosing to remove a wall in a period property is not an easy decision to make. Initially, there are the usual considerations that need to be pondered, regardless of the house’s age: Is the wall load-bearing and what will take the load instead when the wall is gone? Where am I going to put all the furniture that currently lines both sides of the wall? Will the positive effect of having a larger space outweigh the negative effect of losing a room (especially on the estate agent’s details, should we decide to sell)?
After these considerations, you will find that there are other questions, specific to older houses, which can be much tougher to answer. These are deeper, more searching questions that can claw at the very part of your soul that compels you to live in a period property. To start with, we have the matter of destroying the near-perfect symmetry of the original design. This I can live with as, on the other side of the house, the kitchen and dining room have already had their connecting doorway enlarged. This means that, in actual fact, knocking the other two rooms through would be redressing the current asymmetry, rather than being responsible for it. Yes, that sounds good; I like that.
There’s also the matter of scale. The new room would be almost half the ground floor – would that look odd in a period setting? What about the difference in the ‘feel’ of the two rooms? The sitting room, having started life as the kitchen, is basic, functional and lacking in any real detail. The large, unadorned fire opening, which once presumably housed a range, is in stark contrast to the huge marble-effect slate fireplace in the front room. Conversely, the sitting room and hallway have beautiful oak parquet flooring (not original but a welcome later addition), whilst the front room still has its original pine boards. The textures of the two rooms are very different too. The front room is all plastered, as you’d expect, but in the sitting room we had already started to experiment with playing on the utilitarian nature of the old kitchen. The plaster on the stair wall was blown and needed to be replaced so, whilst on the phone one day, I sat on the stairs and removed it. We immediately fell for the texture of the brick wall and decided that I should repoint and paint the wall, rather than re-plaster it.
After considering all these points, we finally decided that, through the careful use of colour and by replacing the rotten front room floorboards with oak to compliment the parquet, we would be able to marry the feel of the two rooms and make one large, bright living space out of two much darker rooms. Above all else, we decided that we needed to be honest and not try to pretend that the house was built that way.
It was therefore with the aid of several Acrow props, a large lintel and a much clearer vision of what lay ahead that I took the wall down, slowly and gently (as is the best way with properties of this age). Despite constantly telling myself that I could always brick it up again if we didn’t like it, it soon became clear that we had definitely made the right decision.
There is still a lot of work to do, from re-plastering to laying the oak floor and, of course, the decorating. But paint colours have been chosen and it won’t be long before our newly enlarged sitting room starts to come together.
I hope you will join me for the next instalment.